The “12 Days of Christmas” Song: A Morality Tale About the Destructiveness of Sensual Excess

You see what’s happened here

People are always wondering what the birds and characters represent in the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” It seems awfully clear to me that the song is meant as a morality tale. The song is about the inevitability with which everything in this life—including what always feels like the most important/intense thing, which is romantic love—fades and perishes. It’s the story of that happening. Here’s the trajectory of that woeful (and hopefully instructive) narrative trajectory as it unfolds in the song:

A partridge in a pear tree. First you’re alone. You’re slightly overweight. But you want to be part of a pair. And you want the love you hope to be a part of to grow, just like a tree.

Two turtle doves. Turtle doves are love birds. You’re really driving home the point now that you want to be part of a couple.

Three French hens. Hens represent domesticity. That’s your ultimate desire: marriage—a permanent, long-term relationship. One where, like all middle-aged couples, the two of you eventually take a vacation to Paris. Hence the “French” part.

Four calling birds. You announce your engagement to all!

Five gold rings. A marriage ring for each finger! You insane romantic, you! You’re the patron saint of De Beers!

Six geese a’ laying. This indicates that your earthly riches are growing; it’s a reference to the geese that laid the golden egg. You’re married, your career is going great … you’re on top of the world.

Seven swans a’ swimming. Swans represent moats; moats represent castles. This verse symbolizes that you’re now definitely ridiculously wealthy. You’ve persevered in your drive to succeed and acquire great earthly wealth—and so you have.

Eight maids a’ milking. Okay, now you just have too much money. And, in the way of the flesh, you’ve clearly begun your descent into sensual excess.

Nine ladies dancing. You’ve installed a disco light in your living room. You’re getting much too high, much too often. You’re basically sort of losing it.

Ten lords a’ leaping. You couldn’t find it now if it was the only thing in your “fun dungeon.”

Eleven pipers piping. The only people left in your life are drug dealers. (Your marriage, of course, fell apart during the whole milk maids debacle.) You don’t care. As long as you have your pipe, you think you’re happy.

Twelve drummers drumming. It’s death march time for you.

Next time: Jingle bells–or death knolls?


See also my Go to Work as The Twelve Days of Christmas!

(Ark, ark. Hey, but seriously: Merry Christmas!!!)




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  • Yeah the eight maids a milking seems udderly pornographic to me.

  • Three French hens. Three in French is "trois," as in menage a trois. I'm just saying.

  • Tim

    Hah! Udderly pronographic.

    The first day of Christmas used to remind me of sitting in a pear tree outside Laurie Partridge's bedroom window…peeping…not like a bird, but like a hormonal 13 year-old.

  • textjunkie

    hee!! Merry Christmas to you and yours too, John!

  • Lisa

    wow ….I was posting each of these on my FB leading up to the "twelfth day". Now I feel dirty!

    Thanks for the lesson.

  • Lisa: Hah! I'm glad I could help make your holiday season … scarier.

  • LOL nicely done. 8-12 had me giggling. The six geese a' laying, I was kinda thinking this was the popping-out-babies reference, and then the seven swan a' swimming may be the time after the kids are somewhat self-sufficient and one is free to do stuff again… leading to the maids a' milking excess after the trials of child-rearing. But that is a different evolution. 🙂